Tag Archive for: Sex Ed

This is a response to Elizabeth’s comment on the previous post about sex as a commodity, and I will preface it by saying I wish I had a definitive answer. She asked how I would educate my sons about sex and rape culture if I had sons, and I think it is a particularly salient question. I thought about it in the context of my brothers and my dad, but my teenage years were a different time. Not that there wasn’t a hearty dose of misogyny and male entitlement, but it wasn’t talked about at all, and rarely was it ever challenged.

After puzzling on it for a bit, I went to a source I trust: Lola. As a 13-year old girl who is proficient in social media, steeped in girls’ empowerment, and has a strong, vocal opinion on social justice, I was interested in her ideas about how to talk to teenage boys about rape culture.  She started out by encouraging parents to watch this YouTube video about consent with their kids. All of them, boys and girls, starting at a pretty young age. It’s a pretty powerful analogy and points out just how absurd our ideas about sexual consent are.

I love this video because it doesn’t avoid the idea that a person’s consent status can change at any point. Yes, it is possible for someone to say “yes” and then change their mind, two or five or twenty-five minutes later. And no matter when it happens, it’s valid. I’ve talked to my kids about the concept of the Least Common Denominator (don’t let your eyes glaze over – this has nothing to do with math). That means that the person who is the least comfortable gets to make the rules. The lowest threshold for sexual intimacy is the trump card. So if I really want to have full sexual intercourse but my partner just really wants to make out on the couch, we stop there. Period.

The second point Lola said was important to share with teenage boys is that, even though they may not have personally done anything to make a girl feel uncomfortable, rape culture means that in many situations, we just are.  Even I, in my mid-40s and fairly fit, am always nervous when I get into an elevator with just one other person who is male. Always. That is rape culture. Rape culture is me not feeling comfortable getting into an Uber or a Lyft by myself with a male driver. Chances are, he is a nice guy who will pick me up and take me to the destination I requested without any detours, but rape culture means that I am acutely aware at all times that I lack power – and therefore physical autonomy – until I get out of the car.  And rape culture also means that I often suffer through comments on my physical appearance and speculation about what I might be going out to do (often with lewd body language) and don’t speak up because it might anger the driver and then I’m screwed. Lola said she would want boys to know that these kind of experiences happen daily to girls and women, even if they themselves aren’t perpetuating it. She wondered if they might be willing to imagine what it would be like to be constantly on guard, wondering if the next guy who spoke to you would try to do more than speak.

We ended up having a conversation about street harassment and she cracked me up when she said, “They should know that girls and women don’t get dressed in the morning so that they can go out and get comments on their appearance from total strangers. Ever. That’s not a thing.” Even if guys think it’s totally innocent or a compliment to tell someone how they look, it ultimately makes women and girls feel unsafe simply walking down the street.  This video is a powerful one because it is a small sampling of what many women experience on a daily basis as they go about their business. And the irony is, no matter how she was dressed, if she had been accompanied by a man her age or older, none of that would have happened.  Nobody would have commented on her appearance – some out of fear of the other man, and some out of respect for him. But none of them out of respect for her. And that is rape culture.

The fact is, as I wrote in my last post, in our culture sex is often about power, and those who are born with more power are the ones who often make the rules about sex. Frankly, the most impactful thing I’ve been able to do when I’m having a conversation about sex with my girls is to listen. I like to think that I’m fairly plugged in to pop culture, but I know that there is a lot that goes on that I don’t see. And I’ve discovered that if I listen without judgment, my kids actually first love to shock me with the tales of goings-on in their world, and then feel like they can dig a little deeper and think about how all of it makes them feel.  I have also discovered that talking about sex and sexuality in lots of different ways – commenting when we’re watching a TV show together or when I hear a story on NPR with them in the car, showing them a video like the ones in this post and watching for their reactions, or slipping this letter under someone’s bedroom door – gives us opportunities to continually explore and challenge the ideas we have about sex.

Elizabeth is right. Talking to our kids about sex is incredibly hard. Sometimes they get annoyed and don’t want to talk (or listen). Sometimes I’m not the best at explaining something or helping them understand where I’m coming from. Sometimes I’m not good at listening without judgment. But the most important thing I ever did for my girls was to let them know that I’m willing to keep trying. That they can come talk to me about hard things whenever they want to and that I will bring tough subjects up from time to time and ask them to indulge me. Because if we as parents don’t work to counter the basic themes about sex that our kids get from school and the mass media, nobody will.

Jon Krakauer’s Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town
The New England Prep School rape case
Peggy Orenstein’s latest book, Girls & Sex
Sex trafficking rates skyrocketing
The advertising phrase (and perhaps its most bedrock belief) “sex sells”

I could go on, but I think you’ll get the point. I’ve written here many times about rape culture and Sex Ed and I have very, very strong opinions, both as a sex assault survivor and as the mother of two daughters. But more than that, I am concerned for the way our entire culture treats the topic of sex because I think that from a very young age we are taught that sex is, first and foremost, a commodity, and secondly (sadly, a distant second for many, many people), an act of affection and/or love between individuals.

Long before most parents even consider broaching the subject of sex and sexuality with their children, they are bombarded by slick magazine ads, television shows, movies, and books that depict sex as a commodity, as something that we all ought to want and that we can buy our way into. There are many young people who are taught by older children or adults that their sexuality is something that can “buy” affection or special favors. Parents who prostitute their children are not only profiting financially, but they are teaching their children that sex has power and if you want money – or if you have it – you need only sell yourself. Many teenagers, both girls and boys, have a deep understanding of sexual favors – there are those who purchase social capital by giving blow jobs or hand jobs to others and those already in power who cement their status by receiving those favors.

Even if these kids do get “Sex Ed” in school, it is largely mechanical in scope, outlining anatomical features and talking about how pregnancy happens and how to avoid STDs. By the time they are adults, very few of them have an understanding of sex as something that is theirs to define – that they have every right to engage in it with an expectation of pleasure as opposed to some “reward.” Our American notion of “sex” is a very transactional one that is often one-sided. By the time we have the courage to really talk to our kids about sex (if we ever do), there is so much damage to undo that it feels overwhelming. And for children who learn early on, through abuse or sex trafficking, that sex is a tool, it is possible that their fundamental understanding of this act that is supposed to make their lives more whole has been forever damaged. How do you undo the notion that the person with more (power, control, money, status) has the right to obtain sex from the one with less when that is what you are shown in so many different ways over and over, nearly from the time you were born?

When girls are raised with the idea that their power lies in their ability to grant or withhold sex (the most egregious example of this I’ve heard of recently was Spike Lee’s latest movie Chi-Raq), it is damaging to their ability to see sex as something that is more intrinsically rewarding. When they are surrounded by images of women who are sexually provocative and who are praised for it (Kim Kardashian’s nude Instagram photos, anyone?), they are taught that sex is a tool, and that it ought to only look one way or it isn’t right.

When boys are raised with the notion that the more sex they have, the more masculine they are, it is equally damaging. Because, in our culture, they are born with more power at the outset, when they are presented with the idea that sex is a commodity, it isn’t much of a mental leap to imagine taking sex when they want it, simply because they can. When we set sex up to be about power, we can expect rape to follow along shortly. When business lunches are conducted in strip clubs and sex trafficking rates rise sharply during the Super Bowl, you can be sure that we have embraced sex as a commodity.

The question is, are we willing to live with the consequences of that or can we start talking to our young people about what else sex might be, instead?

Sexual assault weighs heavily on my mind of late. Between the former Subway pitchman admitting to child pornography and rape of children, and the New York Times story of ISIS using rape as a strategic tactic, and the trial of a prep school graduate who is alleged to have raped a fellow student as part of a graduation ritual, the news seems saturated with it. I am reading Jon Krakauer’s book on campus rape, “Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town” at a snail’s pace because the stories give me a stomach ache, both with regard to what the students went through as they were sexually assaulted and the treatment they faced from police officers and prosecutors and school officials, not to mention the perpetrators. As the mother of two daughters, it is increasingly difficult to not see threats around every corner. As a sexual assault survivor, I know all to well the power of such violations and the trails they weave throughout a life.

This morning, I was particularly struck by the article on Jezebel (referenced above) pertaining to the testimony of the alleged victim in the prep school trial. She was quoted as saying,

“I didn’t want to come across as too offensive or rude….I didn’t want to cause conflict,”

 in response to a crude email invitation he sent to her to join him.  In other testimony, she said,

“I tried to be as polite as possible.”
“I wanted to not cause a conflict”
“I feel like I had objected as much as I felt I could at the time. And other than that I felt so powerless”

And while many people have (and will continue to) comment that this girl was stupid, that by making those choices, she clearly wasn’t really objecting to sexual contact with this man (he was over eighteen at the time and she was either 14 or 15), her words resonate with so many women and girls.

To this day, I still wrestle with telling my massage therapist or the dentist that I’m uncomfortable, to go easier, because I don’t want to be rude or tell them how to do their job. Saying it out loud sounds ludicrous, but I was brought up as a compliant Catholic girl who was to always assume that my elders knew what they were doing. I was not to question them or challenge them, but to defer to them and make them feel good. Not only was that the “Right” thing to do, but I quickly learned that it was the best way to get them to like me. It made me the perfect victim of childhood sexual abuse by an older boy. I never said a word. I’m certain that as I lie in his dank, sweat-scented, 17-year-old boy bedroom and he assaulted me multiple times over a period of months, I never cried out, fought back, said no. I know that it was decades before I ever told anyone, and every time I considered it, I saw his mother’s face in my mind and wondered what it would do to her. I saw my own mother’s face in my mind and wondered what impact it might have on her if I told – would she be seen as a horrible mother? Would she think of herself that way? It never occurred to me to ask whether or not anyone would believe me because I wasn’t going to tell – it would disrupt too many lives.  I wasn’t weighing my own life in this equation at all. I had absorbed the messages served up to me by the church and our culture too well. It was more important to be liked than it was to stand up for myself. It was more important to preserve the feelings of someone else (especially if they were older than me or male) than it was to express my own feelings.

Forgive us. And let us learn from this.

Let us teach our children that they can always apologize for being rude, but they can’t ever take back those moments where they didn’t stand up for themselves.

Let us teach our children that they matter as much as everyone else around them, that their opinions and thoughts are just as valid.

Let us teach our children to listen to their gut, to develop that spidey-sense that defies logic and is always right.

Let us teach them that they have a right to draw boundaries, whether anyone else likes it or not.

I have done my level best to help my daughters understand these things. They have been accused of being insolent or rude by some family members for “talking back,” but I’ll take that over being walked on any day. If they ruffle some feathers by being outspoken and opinionated, by refusing to do something they don’t want to do even if it will make someone else happy, I’m okay with that. And I sincerely hope that, with enough practice, if either of them ever finds themselves in a dark room with someone who is determined to overstep their boundaries, these lessons will come back to them and they will say to themselves, “F*ck rude – I said NO!” It is not a silver bullet, but it is something.

I am officially done with the culture that encourages girls to sublimate their own wishes in order to make anyone else feel good.

I am officially done with the culture that encourages boys to find conquests and ignore the wishes of others so that they can make themselves feel good.

It begins here, with a pledge to do better. To teach our girls and boys that they are, first and foremost, human beings deserving of respect, especially by themselves.

Related writings: Campus Rape
10 Things I Want My Daughters to Know About Sex
Rape in the Military

There is a certain false sense of security that comes with having my daughters in an all-girls middle school. There is a modicum of relief that washes over me when I hear other parents talking about the flirtatious interactions and attractions, both clandestine and overt, that their children experience daily, hourly, continuously.  My girls get to go to school and not have to endure ‘accidental’ jostling or groping from the boy whose locker is adjacent to theirs. They are not awash in titillating situations between or during classes.

But, like I said, this is a false sense of security. Because the fact is, both of my girls identify as heterosexual at this point and both are attracted to boys – both the celebrity variety and those they know peripherally.  And while they may not see boys on a daily basis at school, they know boys and interact with boys over text and Skype and email and Facebook and I have recently begun wondering how these non-personal encounters will ultimately affect their comfort level with boys in the actual flesh.  This, of course, leads me to wonder how boys and girls learn to communicate with each other in general (and not on a sibling-level which is vastly different than both friend and partner interactions).  Should we be talking to our kids about how they present themselves, talk about themselves, assert themselves in person with someone they might be physically attracted to?  I think so.

Yesterday The Lancet published a study they conducted on the prevalence of rape, specifically, “Prevalence of and factors associated with non-partner rape perpetration: findings from the UN Multi-country Cross-sectional Study on Men and Violence in Asia and the Pacific.” (Yeah, I know – it’s a mouthful.)  I was blown away by what they found.  If you wish to examine the study and attendant findings, it is here. If not, I will attempt to accurately paraphrase the portions that shocked me to the core.

First of all, in surveying these men, ages 18-49, they did not use the word “rape.” Rather, they described circumstances that are most definitely qualified as rape and asked whether the men had engaged in any of these actions. One example was to ask whether the respondent had ever “forced a woman who was not your wife or girlfriend at the time to have sex” or “had sex with a woman who was too drunk or drugged to indicate whether she wanted it.” The numbers were staggeringly high.

In New Guinea, more than 26% of men self-reported having raped (by the above definitions) at least one woman. This ranged down to the lowest percentage of men (2.6%) in rural Bangladesh, but the numbers on repeated or multiple incidents was frightening as well.  There were no countries in this study where the sample did not contain at least one percent of respondents who had raped multiple women.  The table of results is here and includes data on men raping other men.

In nearly every country, 50% of the perpetrators committed their first rape prior to the age of 19, China being the exception.  My heart stopped when I saw that statistic.

This from the study itself: “All men who had raped were asked if they agreed or disagreed (on a four-point Likert scale) with a set of statements about why they did it. The statements expressed sexual entitlement (or the belief that if a man wants sex he has a right to have it, irrespective of the woman’s views: “I wanted her”, “I wanted to have sex”, or “I wanted to show I could do it”); entertainment seeking (“I wanted to have fun” or “I was bored”); anger or punishment (“I wanted to punish her” or “I was angry with her”); and drinking (“I had been drinking”).

And this, folks, is why I think it is vitally important that we talk to our children about the way they interact with the opposite sex. I will grant that this study did not take place in the United States and there were some correlations with violent conflicts (civil wars) and men’s attitudes towards women (a similar study in South Africa shows that nearly 28% of men admit to multiple rapes of non-partner women), but I wonder how much different the answers might be in our country.  When interactions of a personal nature are increasingly less personal (sexting, Skype ‘sex,’ etc.), how can we truly appreciate physical cues and tone of voice? When girls are objectified by the media (think: “Toddlers and Tiaras,” “Dance Moms,” any magazine advertisement for clothing or perfume or accessories in your local hair salon) and boys absorb those messages whether or not they mean to, how do we learn to talk to each other about ourselves in an authentic, meaningful way? How do we begin to have honest conversations about who we really are and how we deserve to be treated?

I don’t claim to have the answers, but I am certainly going to begin encouraging my girls to find ways to be in casual social situations with boys where they can practice simply being who they are. I imagine it will be an education for them as well as the boys they are around and I can only hope it will build their confidence to the point where they look beyond stereotypes of what a boy ‘ought’ to be like to the person inside as well as letting their true personalities emerge.

God help me.

I have written about Sex Ed before, both its importance and the fact that I believe we are doing families and students a disservice by calling it that.

Last week the girls’ school held a combined Parent/Student Education night for 7th and 8th graders and their families, led by one of the science teachers and the health/nutrition/fitness teacher.  The idea was to talk to the group as a whole to begin with, then break them up into two groups (Students and Parents) to talk for a bit and formulate a list of questions for the other group, and finally bring them all back together to discuss some of the issues.  Eve was greatly relieved that Bubba was out of town and we were unable to join the discussion at school but I was, frankly, quite disappointed.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t rub my hands together in gleeful anticipation of talking to my daughters about their sexuality, especially given the fact that they both seem patently uncomfortable with the subject.  I was disappointed because, like most things, I believe that the more baby steps we can take, the easier it will get over time.  I am not a proponent of the ‘shock’ therapy that one educator I know engages in (among other tactics, she has the girls shout the word, “penis!” at the top of their lungs repeatedly to desensitize them to it).  I’m not against it, but it simply isn’t my style.

I was very happy to see an email from one of the instructors a few days after the program with an attached document containing both the student-generated and parent-generated lists of questions from that evening.  I forwarded it on to Eve and asked her to pick three questions she wanted to ask me. I would do the same and after dinner we headed out to take a walk.  She wasn’t thrilled.

The list of questions ranged from things like “Do you trust me?” and “What kind of boyfriend do you want me to have?” to the distinctly more squirm-worthy ones such as “How old were you when you first had sex?” and “What is molestation?” and “Does it smell when you ‘do it’?”  Predictably, Eve chose three pretty tame ones.  I let her start, but said we would alternate who asked and who answered.

I tend to give thesis-length answers, but I tried to be as concise as possible so she would remain interested and engaged in the conversation and it was fairly genial.  My first two questions were softballs, but the last one was more pointed.  Of course, when we were within a block of home, the real meat of the discussion came up and we were able to talk about date rape and how to determine if other people are trustworthy in certain situations.  We extended our stroll a bit to accommodate.

As we headed across the deck for the back door, I told her that I’d like us to do this twice a month or so until we’ve exhausted the questions on both lists.

“Mom! Some of those questions….I don’t want to do this all the time! Why do we have to?”

I know she’s embarrassed.  I know she thinks she knows more than she does.  I know she would probably rather get this information from her friends – despite the fact that they don’t know as much as they think they do, either.  But what I’m looking for here is to establish a rapport between us that doesn’t treat her sexuality as uncomfortable or shameful.  I don’t want to know details of her consensual experimentations with boys (when she finally has them, hopefully at a developmentally appropriate time) and I have no intention of sharing intimate details of my sex life with her. We aren’t BFFs. But I do want to make sure that if she ever has a question about whether or not it’s the right time for her to start experimenting or how to obtain reliable birth control or if she needs to tell me something difficult that she isn’t proud of, that she feels comfortable coming to me because we have proven ourselves able to talk about it calmly and with respect for each other.

So many of the questions on those lists had more to do with figuring out your own values and understanding your own boundaries and comfort zones than they did with anything else.  It is precisely for this reason that I think calling the classes “Sex Ed” unnecessarily creates the illusion that the material is all about intercourse and other intimate sex acts.  In my experience, it is so much more about knowing the mechanics of your own body, learning about how hormonal changes affect different aspects of your life, and figuring out how to make good choices that fit within your own personal comfort level.  Imagine if everyone were able to access information about how to take care of themselves in every aspect – physically, emotionally, spiritually – and to practice thinking critically about why certain choices were better or worse than others.  Don’t we want that for all our children? Spouses?  Parents? And just like with any other subject, additional perspectives can only add to understanding which is why it is important to me that my girls are able to discuss the material with me, uncomfortable or not.

Sex Ed. Ooh, the phrase strikes fear in the hearts of so many for such a variety of reasons. I’ll admit that, as the mother of two daughters, I was a little afraid to broach the subject, too, and with Eve being the first of my girls to get any sort of formal sexual education at school, I was curious and a nervous. But, three weeks into the six week program, I have to say that I don’t even know why it is called “Sex Ed.”

Let me preface this by saying that my own personal experiences with Sex Ed are basically two: mine and Eve’s. I have no idea what the curriculum is like at most public schools these days. I only know what I got (an awkward, red-faced teacher whose attempt to educate us was limited to a thirty minute film coupled with two worksheets that basically described male and female reproductive anatomy), and what Eve is getting and the two are not even in the same universe.

Of course, any faithful reader of my blog has read my fawning words of praise for Eve’s school here and here, so I suppose none of the following should come as a surprise. But, that being said, I honestly think that even if half of the content given to Eve and her fellow students is presented in public schools today, we ought to rename the class itself and maybe douse that fear strike with a big ol’ bucket of water.

While the staff at Eve’s school do tackle those big scary concepts of anatomy and development and *gasp* sex, there is so much more involved. Like discussing how we make decisions and why. Like understanding that, in the heat of the moment, we often can’t rely on our brains to give us accurate enough information so it’s important to build a moral framework that will carry us through. Like learning to accept that our bodies and minds are changing and making friends and staying true to ourselves during those shifts is really, really hard. They ask the girls to think about whether the pediatrician they’ve seen since the day they were born is someone who they can comfortably talk to about their period and their body image. If not, they want the girls to explore whether they feel like they can talk to their parents or guardians about that and find someone who they can trust and talk to. They talk about peer pressure and nutrition and how they can take care of their bodies and cherish them, no matter the package they come in.

The lessons are also broken down into developmentally appropriate classes so that the eighth graders are getting slightly more sophisticated information than the 5th graders that makes sense to their lives and acknowledges the fact that they are moving on to high school where relationships are vastly different. Last week, the sixth graders wanted to talk about their periods, and the teacher divided the class into groups of three or four and asked the girls to put on skits about having their periods to demonstrate what they already knew, or thought they knew. One group of girls designed a show around a girl who lives with her dad and was mortified to have him take her to the local drugstore to buy tampons. The third member of their group was the nearly-deaf cashier who insisted on hollering, “TAMPONS? I THINK TAMPONS ARE ON AISLE THREE!” in the middle of the store. Another group showcased a young girl who desperately wanted to cancel a sleepover she was going to because she was having her period and was embarrassed to think about throwing away soiled maxi pads in someone else’s bathroom or leaking blood onto her pajamas unknowingly. Once she found the courage to confide in her girlfriend, it turns out they were both cycling right then and everyone had a good, hearty laugh.

These girls astound me with their cleverness and honesty. And the staff bring tears to my eyes with their willingness to listen to the concerns these young ladies have. There is an anonymous question box that has served to enlighten everyone simply because nobody has to raise their hand and ask the embarrassing question everyone wants the answer to.

More than anything, though, I am pleased that “Sex Ed” is treated like just another subject at Eve’s school. These girls are given information that they need just as much as long division or social studies and encouraged to participate by asking questions and exploring ideas outside of school. Eve asked me the other day, as I was driving her and five of her classmates in the carpool, about my first period. I told her honestly: I was in seventh grade and went to the bathroom during the break between Algebra and PE to discover a lot of blood in my underwear. Nobody had ever talked to me about menstruation, so the blood that showed up after a morning of back cramps told me one of two things – either I had some horrible childhood cancer, or God was smiting me for making doe-eyes at Eric during math class instead of listening to the teacher. Either way, I was going to die, but first I had to stuff half a roll of toilet paper into my pants before heading off to PE. The girls were mortified and they all vowed to bring pads to stash in their lockers the next day in case they started their periods at school.

When I think about the things these girls are learning that have nothing (or at least, very little) to do with actually having sex with anyone, it makes me sad to know that there are families in my neighborhood who purposely keep their own children home on the days Sex Ed is scheduled. I am disheartened that the curriculum is even saddled with that particular name, given that these are tremendously important life skills that are being offered, but that the politicization of sex has frightened so many into thinking that we are, instead, encouraging our children to think about sexual intercourse by teaching them about their bodies. What I see them learning is how to understand and care for their bodies, how to ask questions that are important to them (even if they prompt blushing), and the notion that adults in their lives trust them enough to give them this information that is vital to their well-being.